Building a paranormal and supernatural world has been a challenge. I’ve written 6 chapters (around 17,500 words) and assumed that I had enough of a clear idea of what I was doing. This was a mistake, so I dug out Writing the Paranormal Novel by Steven Harper, which has been a sanity-saver, and also given me much more to think about. It’s also reassuring, because it reminds me that anything can be fixed, changed, adapted, cleaned up or built upon.
My first draft already has a few things that need redoing – the beginning, which is weak and has too much exposition, and a couple of scenes that need rethinking. However – this is good, this is all part of writing a novel. It’s a huge lump of clay that will be moulded and pushed and pulled in many different directions by the time I’m finished.
What struck me, however, is how often I have read an Urban Fantasy novel or series and found the world building comfortable and unchallenging. Not all Urban Fantasy books – there are some fantastic books out there and I’m happy to have read some of them – but some of them have worlds that don’t explore themes in a more realistic way.
There are some major clichés, such as the strong, feisty heroine, the brooding vampire, the combative werewolf – then a lack of conflict from the ‘real’ world, such as political, social, cultural, or religious interference. There are a few tropes that I am trying to avoid with this novel – I want to move away from Private Detectives, Free Money (ie. Rich Characters), Unearned Skills, Helpless Female Protagonists (constantly need rescuing, clumsy, lack of direction), and so on.
World Building has been tough, so far. I started with a general idea of what I thought the world was going to be like. Then I realised I hadn’t addressed such things as magical limits (eg. what’s stopping all the magical people taking over the world?), the more exact terms of why exactly the world is a mess (apocalypse? parallel history? a world that has always been supernatural?), and whether I wanted to go the dystopian route or not.
The thing is, when you’re writing your first novel, of course you’ll get excited and want to throw everything in. My brain is tying itself in knots to work out just what sort of a world this is and why it is the way it is. The joy of the paranormal and urban fantasy genres is that, a lot of the time, anything goes. It’s an imaginary playground.
As my draft goes on, though, I realise that I need to take time for better world-building and more thoughtful explorations of how everything fits together. I’ve also been doubting my choice of narrative form – third person with four points of view. The shifts from point of view happen in different chapters, so I’m not switching different voices in one chapter.
Each of these characters is well developed and has their own viewpoint, and they are all moving the plot towards the same place; my worrying is over the attempt to keep their narratives focused. I’ve had a few late night panics where I’ve gone searching for reassurance that it is perfectly fine to have four points of view in one novel. At least I’m challenging myself, and since it’s the first draft, if it doesn’t work, I can rework it.
So what do you need to think about when you’re world-building a modern/urban paranormal novel?
- Masquerade or Sunlit? (ie. hidden supernatural or ‘out’ supernatural?). Past, present, future?
- Setting limits, powers, history, religion, social organisation, and culture for supernatural races. Are they born or made?
- The culture, politics, trade, media, history, religion and technology of the human world.
- Are humans hostile? Or benevolent? Or a mix? To whom? Why?
- Setting – Does it provide conflict? In what way?
- Can anyone do magic? Or become a vampire/werewolf/witch/zombie?
- What kind of research could benefit your world-building? Historical, cultural, political? Technological know-how? Career research? Setting? Reading myths, legends, folklore?
- Are there any otherworldly settings and languages? What are they like? How will you convey a different language?
- What are the systems of magic? What are the rules? How does it affect the environment and technology?
- Are there any allusions to science or bio-science in your novel? How does the paranormal influence medicine and science?
There are many more questions, some relating to character and character development, some to do with plot and story arcs, and more world building essentials, such as education, manners, art and entertainment – a great resource is this blog post from Margo Lerwill: ‘World Building in Urban Fantasy’. You don’t necessarily have to know all of these things. It’s useful to know as much as possible if you feel it will help to make the world more fully realised, but if you don’t know something now, it may occur to you later on in the writing process.
The main thing is, though, to have fun. I’m trying not to worry too much about whether there is something I’ve missed – I can address it in the second draft. I’ve made a lot of notes, documents with lists, descriptions and ideas, a rough map of the London that my characters live in – and this is just the beginning. Immerse yourself in the world you’re creating.
‘If you want to write a fantasy story with Norse gods, sentient robots, and telepathic dinosaurs, you can do just that. Want to throw in a vampire and a lesbian unicorn while you’re at it? Go ahead. Nothing’s off limits. But the endless possibility of the genre is a trap.
It’s easy to get distracted by the glittering props available to you and forget what you’re supposed to be doing: telling a good story. Don’t get me wrong, magic is cool. But a nervous mother singing to her child at night while something moves quietly through the dark outside her house? That’s a story. Handled properly, it’s more dramatic than any apocalypse or goblin army could ever be.’ – Patrick Rothfuss.